Zuckerberg’s Trump Decision Sparks an Internal Facebook Rebellion
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- After Facebook decided not to take down the incendiary looting-and-shooting post by President Trump, its employees took to rival platform Twitter to voice displeasure with Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. Alan Zeino, a software engineer who works at Facebook-owned Instagram, said he was “utterly ashamed.” Wesley Dickens, a data analyst, declared Facebook “on the wrong side of history.” Another software engineer, Dan Abramov, said his team was joining a virtual walkout “in solidarity with the black community.”
The outpouring of dissent was loud and unprecedented. Hundreds of employees participated in the walkout, which, since everyone was working from home, just meant telling their managers they were taking the day off. Even more changed their corporate profile pictures to all-black, or a black-and-white fist with a heart in it and the hashtag #takeaction.
Facebook Inc. executives are bracing for more. Managers say this is just the beginning and things are likely to escalate in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election in November. Since Trump’s victory in 2016, Zuckerberg has promised to take a more serious look at how Facebook stokes divisions in society, particularly through the spread of misinformation and viral polarizing posts. Several employees who spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek on the condition of anonymity see his inaction on Trump’s post as breaking that promise. In a statement, Facebook said it gives “serious attention to the ideas we’re hearing, especially those from our Black community. This is a time not just to listen but to act.”
On Friday, May 29, Zuckerberg woke to an email from his policy team about Trump’s post on Facebook and Instagram that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter Inc. had slapped a warning on the message on its site; Zuckerberg spent hours deliberating over whether Facebook could justify removing it. He spoke with Trump later that day and told the president that his missive was divisive and unhelpful, but it would remain.
Like most Americans, Facebook employees were watching protests and police violence occur around the country. They started opposing their employer’s decision via comments on the internal version of Facebook. Over the weekend, posts about the CEO’s decision received thousands of comments, according to people familiar with the matter. Some defended Zuckerberg, echoing his argument that on the whole, Facebook, which employs around 48,000, is positive for society. Others cited a favorite company philosophy that colleagues should always “assume good intent” of the person offending them. The saying started as a tool for employees to process blunt feedback from engineers; now some employees felt it was being used to silence dissenters.
Facebook’s corporate environment doesn’t breed rebellion. When employees join, they receive friend requests from all their co-workers, and their personal and work lives start to merge. Zuckerberg also hosts a weekly question-and-answer session with staff, which usually helps them feel their concerns are being heard.
But many employees felt brave enough to speak up. When Zuckerberg took employee questions via a split-screen video on June 2, they pressured management on whether black leaders in Facebook were involved with the decision not to interfere with Trump’s post, and whether the company was being transparent and honest about its actions. (Zuckerberg had a call with civil rights leaders the day before that he said went well; the civil rights leaders said it was a disaster.) Zuckerberg told the Facebookers things might get worse: “There may be a somewhat prolonged period of civil unrest here in the U.S.” The company said staffers didn’t need to use a personal vacation day for their virtual walkouts.
Earlier this year, employees were upset when Facebook indicated it would allow politicians to lie in their advertisements, despite a commitment to culling election misinformation. Zuckerberg didn’t back down, saying Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of what’s acceptable in political speech. And in October 2018, employees rallied against Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for public policy, who directly supported Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. As Kavanaugh answered congressional questions about whether he committed a sexual assault, Kaplan sat right behind him—angering employees who thought Facebook should at least appear neutral. Despite internal calls for his resignation, Kaplan remained—and was one of the executives advising Zuckerberg on what action to take over Trump’s looting post.
Many employees say there’s a greater urgency to their complaints as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations grow and Trump grows more hard-line. They feel that by trying to be nonpartisan, the company ended up appearing pro-Trump. Former employees supported the virtual walkout with an open letter to Zuckerberg, published in the New York Times. Zuckerberg had always defended Facebook’s inaction by saying the company shouldn’t wield so much power over society. But Facebook already has that power, the former employees noted in the letter. It’s already an arbiter of truth, and it’s never been neutral. They expressed “shared heartbreak” that the thing they helped build is stoking division in society. “I think the fear of losing one’s country overrides the fear of losing one’s job,” says Bobby Goodlatte, the co-founder of Form Capital and a former Facebook designer, who signed the letter.
Even before the Trump tweet, Zuckerberg was defending Facebook’s neutrality on Fox News: “We have a different policy, I think, than Twitter on this. You know, I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” He also tried hard to remind people of the good work he’s been able to do because of Facebook, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s philanthropic investments. But even that group was rattled. On June 6, 143 scientists funded by CZI sent him a letter, saying the organization’s mission to “build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone” doesn’t align with Facebook’s actions.
Facebook’s founder kicked off 2020 by declaring that he was going to stop trying to make everyone happy. “My goal for this next decade isn’t to be liked, but to be understood,” he said in January. He’s been promising employees and other critics greater transparency, but not acquiescence. Facebook has said it will look into supporting racial justice causes and commit to building a hub of vetted information for the coming election.
Zuckerberg has increased his grip over operations, and executives who used to challenge him have quit or been pushed out. Several long-standing board members are also gone. “Nobody can shape Mark,” says a former close associate who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named. “Nobody can convince him of anything.”
That may be true, but hundreds are now determined, and angry enough, to try. “Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence,” says Timothy Aveni, an employee who resigned from the company in protest over the Trump post. “He showed us this was a lie.”
Read more: Inside Twitter and Jack Dorsey’s Stand Against Donald Trump
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